Monday, June 24, 2024

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My Top Ten of 1941

I watched 82 movies for 1941:

All That Money Can Buy
All-American Co-Ed
Aloma of the South Seas
Appointment for Love
Back Street
Ball of Fire
The Big Store
Billy the Kid
Birth of the Blues
Blood and Sand
Blossoms in the Dust
Blues in the Night
Buck Privates
Cheers for Miss Bishop
The Chocolate Soldier
Citizen Kane
The Devil and Miss Jones
The Devil Pays Off
Dive Bomber
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Flame of New Orleans
Flight Command
The Great Lie
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
High Sierra
Hold Back the Dawn
Hold That Ghost
How Green Was My Valley
Hudson's Bay
I Wanted Wings
The Invisible Woman
King of the Zombies
Ladies in Retirement
Lady Be Good
The Lady Eve
Las Vegas Nights
The Little Foxes
Louisiana Purchase
Major Barbara
The Maltese Falcon
Man Hunt
Meet John Doe
The Men in Her Life
Mercy Island
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Moon Over Miami
Night Train to Munich
One Foot in Heaven
Penny Serenade
Pépé le Moko
The Reluctant Dragon
Ridin' on a Rainbow
The Sea Wolf
Sergeant York
Shadow of the Thin Man
Sis Hopkins
Smilin' Through
So Ends Our Night
The Son of Monte Cristo
The Strawberry Blonde
Sun Valley Serenade
Swamp Water
Tall, Dark and Handsome
Tanks a Million
That Hamilton Woman
That Night in Rio
That Uncertain Feeling
This Woman is Mine
Tobacco Road
Topper Returns
When Ladies Meet
The Wolf Man
A Yank in the R.A.F.
You'll Never Get Rich

And now I finally give you a Top Ten. A hat tip to the movies that almost made this list: Blues in the Night, Dumbo, FantasiaMajor Barbara, and my #11, That Hamilton Woman.

In alphabetical order:

All That Money Can Buy

It's the tension between the American Dream in theory and the reality of it, where a man can technically be self-made, but that doesn't mean he'll be a huge success with a mansion and honors to match. It is a country of promise, riches, freedom, where a man can pull himself up by his bootstraps and make something of himself, eventually, maybe - but we are a people with an itch, and the temptation of low effort fast riches is...tempting. This is the struggle at the heart of the film: do we poison ourselves and the people around us with our greed and impatience, or do we recognize that this is a land of opportunity and we are created in God's image and, therefore, nothing is impossible, no evil thing worth it? Though the Devil then reminds us that this country is also built on atrocities - a land of coitradictions, but what country isn't, what people aren't? The visuals and the performances remind us again and again: this is a stylized fable, a ghost story, and in those shadows are the darker sides of our nature, both individually and as a country. It's a thought-provoking motion picture.

Ball of Fire

The movie which dares suggest that life without fun is missing the point, that you’re going to miss the best parts of you lock yourself away working working working and never truly living: never falling in love, never dancing, never having one night where you’d a touch too much to drink, never taking a walk in the park, never putting nose to hedge and breathing deep. All these things the men learn from Sugarpuss, and from them, she experiences the novelty of being treated not as a gangster’s girl or as entertainment, but as a Woman, someone not to be taken for granted but cared for and appreciated, not to be used but to be loved. It’s also the movie that knows nothing is more fun than the combination of gangsters, nightclub singers, and mild-mannered fellows willing to let their hair down. Let there be conga lines in the library! Let there be yum-yum in the parlor! Let there be - drum boogie!

Citizen Kane

It's so easy to take the film hailed as "the greatest of all time" (twice by the American Film Institute over a ten-year period, five times by Sight & Sound over a 40-year period) for granted, or even to just wave away its inclusion here as, "Well, hello, Citizen Kane, duh." It's tempting, because if you love it you naturally assume that anyone who watches it will understand why. You naturally assume that they will watch an aged Jedediah Leland talking about cigars and nurses and other fiddle-faddle, seemingly sharp but still wandering (on purpose or because he's old?) before getting to his narrative, and understand that this allows us to subconsciously filter what follows through this prism of memory. Just as the adoring Mr. Bernstein remembers a misunderstood genius and Susan Alexander remembers a lumbering tyrant - yes, naturally, all these things happened, all the events are true, but what was said, how it was said, how it all looked, what was meant, all are dependent on the teller of the tale. Makes you wonder: does a person become more inscrutable the more "known" they are? 

How Green Was My Valley

The Academy Award winner for Best Picture has gotten a lot of flak over the decades for winning over Citizen Kane but I'm sure if people saw it, they wouldn't necessarily agree that it's the rightful winner, but they'd see the beauty and personality it brings, the mastery of craft that distinguishes it as at least being among the best. Roddy McDowall was apparently born an incredible, instinctive talent and gracious scene partner, holding his own against veterans Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood. Intimate and sprawling, like any childhood.

The Lady Eve

The funniest movie of 1941. It begins with a beer baron's naive son almost getting fleeced by the hottest woman you've ever seen in your life, and just when you think it can't possibly get any better than that, our lady affects a bad accent but does little else in the way of disguise before ingratiating herself into the beer baron's company - and the son reasons that it's too obvious to be the same woman. Wow! Large pieces of furniture are tripped over, breakfast is percussively demanded, and Barbara Stanwyck cements herself as a comic genius whether on a boat, at dinner, or attending a horse race. How can one not include a movie this sexy and this hilarious in their Top Ten?

The Maltese Falcon

The second funniest movie of 1941, but I would never deem it a comedy because the drama is so perfect...and what comedy there is is a direct result of the dramatics. Extortion, blackmail, double-crosses, multiple murders, tension with your dead friend's widow...That's not a funny premise per se, but the execution, the one-liners, the repartee, the witticisms that people exchange as a means to disarm the other guy, allay their own fears, and cut through the general tension - oh, this movie is particularly delicious, not just in those written lines, but in the delivery of them. "Egad, sir!" - those two words as written are awkward, stiff, unnatural, but Sydney Greenstreet via John Huston makes such a meal out of those two words every time that we immediately know whether he means "Oh shit" or "Fuck you". Third time really was the charm for this story!

Pépé le Moko

Pépé hides in the open in the Casbah district of Algiers, all French "property," of course, but the Casbah stands out for being a "refuge" for actual Algerians; here, the French criminal class can live a life of glamour and intrigue as long as they never venture outside its environs, outsiders who've established their own mini-colony where they wax nostalgic about Paris and use and abuse the local women. And, of course, the greatest threat to Pépé is not any of the Frenchmen who are transferred to the city but a fez-wearing inspector who's actually, you know, from the region, Slimane, ridiculed by his colonial co-workers as being in over his head. It is a story of the so-called rebel embracing his place in society and of the colonized using the occupier's weapons against him. Well, I think so, anyway.

Swamp Water

The long delay in posting my Top Ten is entirely due to (a) knowing Swamp Water needed to be part of it but (b) not knowing what to say about it. It ends too patly, important story points come out of nowhere, actors like Eugene Pallette are kind of wasted...but there's just something about this movie that I love. Maybe it's the location shooting at the Okefenokee Swamp, lending an air of verisimilitude even to the backlots and soundstages, since we've seen our stars actually knee-deep in swamp water, gators at the banks. Maybe I just love a story about underdogs sticking to what they know is right and coming out the better for it. Maybe I don't have to overthink it: I had a great time and I think you would, too. 

Tobacco Road

How could the same guy who did The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, beautiful films about the noble poor and working-class (and I agree!), deign to make a comedy about lazy rednecks who wallow in their misery? Well, the poor and working-class are people, which means not everyone is noble, but by gum, they sure have survived, haven't they: fighting for turnips and somewhat eking out a living (?) by selling fallen branches and screaming about car horns. Tobacco Road believes that just because a particular family or even neighborhood is crass and dishonest, that's no reason to dismiss them outright. They are survivors, and it may not be an entirely honest way of living, but it's a hustle as valid as anybody's! And hell, it's important to remember that sometimes, tragedy isn't just about circumstance or luck, it's about the people, too. Tough pill to swallow, but here's Tobacco Road, making us choke it back.

The Wolf Man

The more I think about it, the more I think this might be my favorite of the Universal Monsters movies, a franchise that really began and shaped my love of cinema. A good decade-plus since my last viewing reinforced some elements that hit harder, particularly the tense relationship between father and son: the former welcoming a son home with a handshake, and only because the intended heir died, the latter wanting to be more open, to talk, to have a father who believes him, reassures him, defends him, no matter how estranged or foreign he is. It's that tension, combined with the werewolf symbolism itself - first in the guise of a nomad, then in the guise of our American protagonist, strangers in a strange land, tolerated but not completely accepted, suspected of heresy or worse - it's all that that makes this movie more than a horror film, more than another Universal Monsters entry, but a masterpiece about alienation. Superb stuff.

Tomorrow, my nominees in eighteen categories for: The 1941 Retro Hollmann Awards!

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